Fences With Gates

The center of our philosophy and our theology here at Heatherhope is our belief that God gathers and Satan scatters. If you have an allergy to God- and Satan-talk, then at least consider this basic notion that we all share a need to belong, and there are forces at large that discourage and encourage the fulfillment of that shared need. The Epistle of John says, “God is love.” We add, “God gathers.”

So, all of us have strengths and weaknesses, and we feel most at home and most fulfilled when we are able to help others and help them belong with our gifts and when we are lifted up and drawn near where we fall short.

Living at peace with this kind of belonging is what holds us in a good relationship with society around us. Living at war with it keeps us in tension.

A perennial problem in our political world is that people have lined up on two sides of a divide. One side believes society as a whole can only be strong and good when individuals are strong and good. Liberty to do as we wish with what we have as individuals is all important, and any attempt to engineer positive outcomes by government and its powers detracts from individual liberty and from the health of society. The other side of this divide believes that we cannot produce strong and good individuals without good government and good systems; and we must give up some individual liberty to achieve the good of the whole.

An interesting test case of these two perspectives is public health in general and vaccination in particular. The disease of measles was on the verge of being eliminated in the United States when a group of campaigners began to claim that there was strong reason to suspect that the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine was causing autism in children. A host of studies has thoroughly debunked those claims, yet there are communities in the nation where parents have refused to have their children immunized.

Those who believe healthy societies make healthy individuals have on their side the argument that the protection of each of us as individuals depends on very high immunization rates so that infections cannot spread far and wide.

But there is a weakness to the “good society leads to good individual” argument. The chief tool that is always lifted up as making society good is education. If we simply help people understand the facts and the consequences of their actions we will build the good society.

The weakness of this idea was exposed by a study of people who were initially hesitant to immunize their children with the MMR vaccine. They were shown a large amount of information from research that clearly debunked the claim that the vaccine caused autism. The result was that those initially hesitant to immunize gave much less credence to that particular myth, but they also were even more adverse to having their children vaccinated.

This shouldn’t be a big surprise. In 1954, the social psychologist, Gordon Alport, published his book, The Nature of Prejudice. One of the concepts he noted there was that all of us have a keen ability, when presented with clear evidence that our prejudices are wrong, to simply “re-fence” them. I think of this as the “Yeahbut” defence. Deep down we may even have an uncomfortable feeling that we have built our notions on a feeble foundation, and that we are acting irrationally. But reason be damned, it is our personal worth that is being questioned, and we cannot give an inch. So, we say, “Yeah, but…” and we go on acting as we had before.

Our society and our individuals need more than good schools or good educational campaigns. We also need good families and churches where a deeper kind of spiritual formation can take place. There is not a single societal program that can be “sold” to the public without there being a deep and broadly shared worldview that causes people to see every individual as sacred, but also the community, and even the family of humankind as sacred. This is the idea of the holy. This is something that we learn not from books or software programs, but from living in community and sharing in the ancient traditions of philosophy and religion.

Fences are quite important on this farm where we keep sheep. But so is moving the stock from place to place to keep the grass from being overgrazed and dying out. So we need gates. We need them in the right places. We need to keep them in good repair and free from ice and snow and briars and brambles. We need to have good dogs that can move the sheep where they don’t want to go so that we can medicate them or just get them to fresh food and water.

The good shepherd knows that there is a place for fences and a place for gates. And the Good Shepherd works always to gather, not to divide and scatter. She knows the health and strength of each little lamb depends on the health of the entire flock. She knows how important it is to have other flocks out there where she can find rams and replacement ewes that are healthy. She knows it because she has found good information in books and online resources, but more importantly because she has been around other good shepherds who have lived this way. They have, slowly perhaps, but surely, discarded ways that scattered and weakened the flock, and adopted the ways that gather and make the whole flock strong.


About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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